Following an epic win over the rival New York Knicks on Monday night, the Boston Celtics return home in search of their fourth straight win. Ironically, they will work to earn this victory against a team seeking to avoid a fourth straight loss. The Phoenix Suns have really struggled this season, and an upset win at TD Garden could provide plenty of momentum.
Both teams last faced each other nearly a year ago, with Phoenix winning a tough defensive battle against then-elite Boston.
The Celtics have looked anything but elite this year, standing 17-17 and ranking eighth in the Eastern Conference. The team is also the worst rebounding squad in the league, as Kevin Garnett's age is starting to show and there is no consistently reliable defender in the paint besides him.
Phoenix is still the young run-and-gun team they have been in years past, but the loss of Steve Nash via free agency has been felt throughout the organization. Despite ranking 16th in points scored, the Suns' overall play has been inconsistent and their youth and lack of depth come back to bite them.
Head coach Alvin Gentry must have his men fight past that tonight, taking full advantage of the Celtics' age. A win in Boston would be huge for Phoenix and despite the Suns' youth, they just might be able to pull it off.
Time: Wednesday, January 9th, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, Fox Sports Arizona HD
Records: Phoenix Suns (12-24) vs. Boston Celtics (17-17)
Betting Line: Phoenix (+8.5), Boston (-8.5), via Bovada
Injuries: Fab Melo (concussion, day-to-day), Chris Wilcox (thumb, out), Channing Frye (heart, out)
Key Storyline: Can Young Suns Break Experienced Celtics' Winning Streak?
The Suns come into Boston on a three-game losing streak, but to automatically write them off is not the best idea. Despite their poor record, Phoenix has pulled off a few upset victories this season. The most notable one was against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 12, thanks to a game-winning shot from point guard Goran Dragic.
Boston, however, is a bigger giant to slay. This is the team that nearly defeated the Miami Heat in last year's Eastern Conference finals, only to lose a tough battle in Game 7.
More importantly, the Celtics' core group of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo has more experience playing together than the entire Suns team right now. That trio has won a championship, twice been to the NBA Finals and has on-court chemistry that makes them far stronger than Boston's current record indicates.
Pierce and Garnett are still 35 and 36 years old, however, and age is starting to catch up with them. Pierce can still score well and make the clutch baskets, but Garnett has slowed down notably. His player efficiency rating (PER) is currently at 19.1, the lowest it has been since 2010.
That isn't a long stretch of years, but considering how the Celtics made the NBA Finals that season in spite of Garnett being a bit off, there should be some cause for concern now. The Suns are a young and fast team that can take full advantage of the aging Celtics, and they too have something to play for.
A loss tonight would be the fourth in a row for Phoenix, and it would mark the third separate time this season that such a streak happened. The team needs some momentum, and that can be obtained with a big win, particularly against a Celtics team that is starting to look like its old self.
Key Matchup: Marcin Gortat vs. Kevin Garnett
The key to beating the Celtics is to beat them on the boards, which the Suns might be able to do with Gortat. Phoenix is 26th in rebounding, but Gortat has provided solid size for them in the middle all year long.
At 6'11", 240 pounds, Gortat has averaged 11.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Those numbers do seem low for a center, and that is because Gortat has one fatal flaw. Against teams with elite centers (i.e. Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, etc.), he tends to get dominated.
In games against squads that have these types of centers, or just solid men in the middle as a whole, the Suns have gone just 2-13.
That said, Boston's Kevin Garnett is in a prime position to have a great game. He posted 19 points and 10 rebounds against the New York Knicks on Monday, and will definitely use his performance then as a motivating factor tonight against an inexperienced opponent.
That isn't to say that it won't be an uphill battle for Garnett. He has posted just 14.3 points per game on the season and his 7.1 rebounds are a career low. On top of that, Gortat is much younger at 28 years old.
It still does not take away from the fact that Gortat is not used to playing a regularly physical and intense game, and Garnett must take full advantage of that. In doing so, Boston can win the battle on the boards and send the Suns to a fourth straight loss while Boston goes above .500 for the first time since Christmas Day.
X-Factor: Luis Scola
One of the few bright spots for the Suns this season has been forward Luis Scola, signed during the offseason after being amnestied by the Houston Rockets. He has averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds while also providing decent size at 6'9", 245 pounds and has also been the closest thing to the leader this Suns team needs.
The only mark against Scola is that he isn't exactly the right type of player for Gentry's offense. Yes, he can stretch the floor a little bit, but he is not what one would call a pure jump shooter.
He can hold his own when it comes to the mid-range game, but Scola's best work has always come in or around the paint. The man does good work in the low post and is a solid rebounder, despite posting a career-low in the category this year.
As his chart below indicates, Scola's work under the basket and overall offensive game has not been up to par this season, even though he has shot 47 percent from the field. This can be attributed to playing in the Western Conference, home to some of the league's better power forwards in Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
However, Scola has the opportunity to create quite the mismatch tonight. He will be matched up against Boston's Brandon Bass, who is slow on his feet and has been disappointing this season after signing an extension over the summer.
Scola needs to force Bass into the low post and make him play his game. This means working hard to defend in the paint while also trying to stop his mid-range game. Given how good an athlete Scola is, neither will be an easy task.
If Scola can win this battle and mix up his game on both sides of the floor, then Phoenix just might have a fighting chance.
The Suns definitely have a lot to play for in this game, and their collective youth could be enough to overwhelm the Celtics. Unfortunately, the team's performance this season will get in the way of that.
Phoenix has gone just 2-15 on the road this season and will fall to 2-16 in Boston. The Celtics are just too hot right now and will continue to play some excellent basketball with a rowdy home crowd cheering them on. They have gone 10-6 at home and have looked great during their current streak, so the Suns should be small potatoes for them.
Who will win?
Paul Pierce will have another excellent scoring night, and Rajon Rondo will be in full playmaking mode in his first game back from suspension. In the paint, Garnett will remind Gortat that size and dunking abilities alone do not make an elite big man. He will have another double-double and be Boston's defensive force.
The Suns may go on their fair share of runs throughout the game but still won't be able to keep up with their more experienced opponents. Goran Dragic may chip in 15 points, but his suffering three-point game will keep Phoenix's offense from being the force it has been in the past. Not even the hot-shooting Jared Dudley nor a solid night from Luis Scola will be able to help the Suns pull off the upset.
Instead, Boston will control this game from start to finish. All Phoenix runs will be fought off, and the Celtics will slowly start to remind people just why they are an Eastern Conference contender.
Boston Celtics 105, Phoenix Suns 96